Farm Candy

Farm Candy

Flux is inevitable in the orchard business. John Lyman, the executive vice president of Lyman Orchards and an eighth-generation grower, can trace the history of his family’s land to 1741, when his forebears John and Hope Lyman purchased 36 acres in Middletown. In 1866, the town of Middlefield, encompassing the property, was founded, and the land’s purpose would evolve as well, changing from a multi-crop farm to a specialized peach orchard.

“At the turn of the century, Connecticut was the second largest peach-producing state in the country, behind Georgia,” Lyman says. Happily situated between New York and Boston, the Lyman family orchard and others like it were considered ideal places to grow and ship the infamously fickle fruits. But trouble came, as it so often does to farmers, in the form of bad weather. The winter of 1917-18 was brutal enough to destroy peach orchards all throughout the state.

The decade-long process of replanting the land with hardier apple trees was a difficult time for the Lymans, but when they were finished they found themselves on the crest of the apple wave that was hitting Connecticut. Apples stuck, and today Lyman Orchards is known for its pick-your-own apples, as well as house-made apple pies, apple doughnuts and cider.

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The switch from more classical farming to “agritainment”—establishing attractions like a corn maze, a pumpkin patch and even a golf course—was not an instantaneous one. The pick-your-own program that brings in flocks of families and autumnal day-trippers actually started out “as a way for people to save money,” Lyman says. In the 1960s and ’70s, when the program began, “a lot of the customers were still doing canning and freezing,” and so the orchards would be picked clean by a small band of jam-makers and pie-bakers. In the 1990s, that all changed, and going apple-picking became “a family excursion,” according to Lyman. Some orchards in the area shut down their pick-your-own programs because they “weren’t geared up for the shift,” he says. Lyman Orchards, on the other hand, “allowed to transform” it.

“It’s really about creating an experience for the customer. You want them to think, ‘That was a great apple. I want to come back,’” Lyman says. But great apples are a precision science these days, and a discerning orchardist must navigate a market flooded with the newest, trendiest varieties of apple while making sure that customers can always find their favorites.

Consider the Honeycrisp, an apple with unusual name recognition and loyalty. Five out of five people polled at Lyman Orchards named it as their favorite. It’s often referred to as the first “designer apple,” with delicate green and yellow striations running down its plump red sides, and a taste that, for many people, can’t be beat. But Lyman recalls the hot new thing of yesteryear: the delightfully sour, pleasingly green Granny Smith.

And then there are the apples that fail to take their place at the top of the barrel. Lyman is particularly confounded by the Jonagold, an apple that has it all: good looks, good taste and a good pedigree (it was developed at Cornell). He recalls how excited growers were about the Jonagold, even when he was working abroad at an orchard in Holland in 1980. “They were planting a lot of them then,” he says. “But for whatever reason they failed to capture the imagination of the public.”

For his part, Lyman tries not to play favorites. “I probably have a different favorite apple every week,” he says. But he does have a soft spot for Macouns, which he says are “very much a New England apple.” With 100 acres and 20-plus varieties of apple, however, there’s no need to pigeonhole your pick-your-own.

What’s especially striking about Lyman Orchards is the view afforded by its altitude. The golf course, homestead and Apple Barrel food store are all in the dip of a valley. But the apple trees themselves are spaced out in long lines across a steep hill. As you walk up, you pass many different varieties of trees, some heavy with fruit, some bare save their leaves. At the top of the hill, you see the land stretching out on either side of you, dense with treetops showing autumn’s first blush.

It’s easy to get sentimental in an orchard, but, as Lyman notes, some portion of the apple trees are always on the chopping block. The lifespan of an apple tree at Lyman is about 25 years, after which point it’s razed and the soil is renewed by planting different crops—peaches, or berries—for a few years before apple trees are planted there again. It’s a fitting exercise for a grower, who, for better or worse, is always bending to change.

When Lyman looks to the future, he sees evolution there, and seems pleased by the idea. “I love the variety, the challenge… It’s nice to keep the legacy going, looking hopefully to the next generation and beyond,” he says. “We want to keep the business relevant and developing, but also keep our roots.”

Lyman Orchards Pick-Your-Own Apples
105 South St, Middlefield (map)
Daily 9am-4:30pm
(860) 349-6015

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Image 1 by sharshonm/Shutterstock. Image 2 photographed by Sorrel Westbrook. This story was originally published on October 12, 2016.

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